Meet Griffin VanMeter, the ambassador of North Limestone

Griffin VanMeter talked to students in Transylvania University's Community Engagement Through the Arts class at The Gathering Place on Bryan Avenue last week.
Griffin VanMeter talked to students in Transylvania University's Community Engagement Through the Arts class at The Gathering Place on Bryan Avenue last week. Herald-Leader

Griffin VanMeter quickly offers the 50-cent tour of the North Limestone home he shares with his wife, Sarah Wylie VanMeter, and their 1-year-old son, Otis.

It's a clean blend of modern and vintage. There are quirks — a ping-pong table that doubles as a large dining room table — and upstairs, the bedrooms are on the small side.

"The idea is to push people out into common areas," VanMeter says.

In back is a balcony showcasing a panoramic view of the North Lime neighborhood with the downtown skyline in the distance.

To many, this might not be the most desirable vista in Lexington — but it is the community VanMeter says he has come to love and wants to bring together.

"I'm selfish," VanMeter, 33, says. "I want things to be better and more interesting where I live."

That drives VanMeter's myriad endeavors: his day job as the co-owner of the branding and design firm Bullhorn Creative; running Kentucky for Kentucky, the company that boosts the commonwealth with offbeat products like Kentucky Fried Chicken-scented candles and the aggressively unofficial state slogan "Kentucky Kicks Ass"; and serving as president of the NoLi Community Development Corp., which is working to boost business and community in his neighborhood.

VanMeter frequently describes himself as the "sign dancer" for the North Limestone neighborhood, referencing people who stand on the side of the road waving signs to direct people to restaurants and other businesses.

With his bushy red beard, shaggy hair, gregarious personality and urban cool factor, he grabs attention.

He operates in some influential circles, but instead of suits, he favors jeans and sneakers and Kentucky for Kentucky garb like the popular "Y'all" sweatshirts. Still, VanMeter cleans up well enough to have been a candidate in Esquire magazine's "best dressed real men" contest in 2008. He's a big proponent of the string tie, which he tells people is Kentucky's official state neckwear.

"I would like to be known as someone who played a vital role in making Kentucky a better place," he says.

Many people say he's well on his way.

"Griffin has made the North Limestone community his home and has dug in for the long haul, and our community has benefited from it greatly," says Marty Clifford, president of the North Limestone Neighborhood Association. "North Limestone has grown as a community with Griffin as its ambassador, he has promoted and influenced the economics and education of our community benefiting all that live here."

Bob Quick, president and CEO of Commerce Lexington, says, "He's the right person in the right place at the right time, and he sees the power of pulling people together.

"He doesn't wait for someone to tell him to do something. In Lexington, you have people who have an idea or see an opportunity and just dig in."

Buying in

Digging in is one way to describe VanMeter and NoLi (pronounced "no lie") CDC partner Richard Young's walk down North Limestone late last month. The pair were drumming up support for a map of local businesses they call the North Limestone Vibrancy Map. They intend to print several thousand copies and distribute them to area businesses.

"So, someone may be eating at Doodles and say, 'Hey, I need to get my shave on,' and they say, 'Oh, I'll go down to Supreme Service,'" VanMeter tells Rodney James, owner of Supreme Service Barber Shop.

VanMeter and Young are asking businesses to chip in $25 each to support printing costs for the map (though businesses will still be included even if they don't pay).

They have no trouble getting contributions. By the time they reach Lexington Beerworks, they actually have elected to give up Bullhorn and the NoLi CDC's premium $150 advertising spots on the back of the map because more businesses than they anticipated want those spaces.

That's what VanMeter is trying to promote in North Limestone: buy-in.

Speaking to a Transylvania University class called "Community Engagement Through the Arts" on Wednesday night, VanMeter tells the students that his main efforts, in conjunction with numerous partners, have included buying properties and encouraging job creation in the neighborhood.

"We have great building stock and great people who live here," VanMeter says. "Dense neighborhoods that are pedestrian-friendly provide great quality of life for people."

But that is not always how VanMeter viewed the neighborhood he now calls home.

He grew up not far from the North Limestone area on his father's farm off Briar Hill Road.

"This was a neighborhood we didn't stop in," VanMeter tells the Transy class, "and when we were in the neighborhood, my parents would say interesting things like, 'Don't look out the window.'"

VanMeter says he can see various seeds of his current endeavors being sown back then. Working on his father's farm engendered a respect for land and place, he says. His parents divorced while he was in school, and he says living at the downtown Lexington home of his mother, Sunny Buckner, gave him an appreciation for the community that happens by gathering on the front porch and meeting people just walking down the street.

His father, Thomas Field VanMeter, recalls that even in elementary school, Griffin always had a lot of projects going on.

"I remember going to a parent-teacher conference, I think it was in fifth grade, and the teacher saying, 'I don't know what this kid's going to do, but whatever it is, I'd like to be a part of it.'"

He wasn't, however, on course to be a community leader.

Leaving and returning

"I was the quintessential high school party kid," VanMeter says, answering a question about what happened in the period between finishing high school and enrolling at the University of Kentucky when he was 22.

VanMeter attended The Lexington School through ninth grade and was then sent to Episcopal High School, a boarding school in Alexandria, Va., where his father had gone. He became a heavy drinker and drug user, cutting his high school career short of graduation. (He eventually got a GED.)

In Lexington, he was having regular run-ins with police, racking up charges including being drunk in public and using a fake ID. He left Kentucky, trying a number of gigs including film production in New York. He says he spent a large part of a six-figure inheritance on an Anthony Michael Hall movie called Funny Valentine that he admits "was horrible." Most of the rest was spent on drugs and alcohol.

It was when he was trying to raise funds for another film project in August 2002 that his father sat him down and told him he needed professional help. VanMeter says he was defiant, but agreed.

"I was really fortunate my dad knew what to do at that moment," VanMeter says.

He spent 27 days in a rehabilitation clinic in Minnesota.

"At some point, the fog cleared, and I realized, I never really finished anything," VanMeter says. "All I had really done was closed all these doors of opportunity that were handed to me on a golden plate."

When he got out of rehab, he went back to New York, trying to pick up where he left off.

"I'm living in New York, trying to get this production stuff done, but I don't have that fire," VanMeter recalls. "So I decided to go to film school, and I'm filling out this application for New York University, and there's this question, 'Why do you want to go to school in New York?' I said, 'I don't want to go to school in New York.'

"It was at that point I realized I wanted to get back home."

His father says, "It seems like when he got home, that's when things really started to straighten out for him."

VanMeter says he has since made several close friends who are also sober, and they support each other.

He moved back to downtown Lexington and enrolled at UK, initially studying agriculture before pursuing photography and then earning a degree in art studio with an emphasis in bookmaking through work at the university's King Library Press.

"I only made one book," VanMeter says, "and that was to woo Sarah Wylie."

Cultivating passions

The couple met shortly after VanMeter and Lester Miller in 2006 bought Stella's Kentucky Deli on Jefferson Street, VanMeter's formal entree into Lexington's revivalist culture.

"He was the funniest person, and I couldn't breathe laughing around him," says Sarah Wylie VanMeter, a digital media lecturer at UK. "He was a shining light."

But she left Lexington for art school in San Francisco. He eventually went to California to win her.

As he often tells the story, he had to sell her on returning to Kentucky, promising she could work on her art and live within walking distance of a good coffee shop.

VanMeter's pitch to the woman he married in November 2009 was her first indication of the passion with which he pursued projects.

That includes Kentucky for Kentucky, which was born with an ambitious but failed project to raise $3 million for an ad promoting the Bluegrass State during the 2012 Super Bowl. But the group really made headlines when VanMeter and partner Whit Hiler launched their rogue effort to change the state's slogan.

A video they made to promote "Kentucky Kicks Ass" quickly gained national attention, including a USA Today story in which Kentucky tourism spokesman Pat Stipes said, "These guys are Kentucky natives and they love the state. But they have a different constituency. Which is no one."

It was a better response than Hiler or VanMeter dreamed of.

"Our fans basically took it as a negative," Hiler says. "People said, 'We're part of that constituency, and we want this message.'"

That's exactly what VanMeter says they wanted people to do.

"The state's focus has always been to market to out-of-towners to attract pass-through money: come visit Kentucky, come stay in our majestic state parks and eat our food," VanMeter says. "Our message has always been, let's market to the people that are already here and give them something to believe in so they become huge word-of-mouth ambassadors for this place."

VanMeter's partner in Bullhorn, Brad Flowers, says, "We think of whatever we do as giving people who live here the confidence to tell their friends, 'This is an awesome place.'"

Making connections

Bullhorn supports all of VanMeter's and his associates' efforts. It is a branding and design firm with clients including Texas Central High Speed Railway, Gainesway Thoroughbred Stallion Farm and the city of Lexington. But, VanMeter notes, it also does work for Kentucky for Kentucky and the NoLi CDC and advances VanMeter's advocacy for the neighborhood.

VanMeter says he initially came to the North Lime area when he moved in with a girlfriend who lived there. They broke up, he rented a place from Clifford, the North Limestone neighborhood president, and began getting involved in area issues.

Bullhorn's office sits at Loudon Avenue and Limestone and employs 12 people, most of whom live within walking distance of the office. There are usually no vehicles in the parking lot except VanMeter's 1971 Chevrolet pick-up truck.

VanMeter acknowledges there are problems in the North Limestone neighborhood including crime, drug use and what he calls predatory businesses, such a liquor stores and payday loan shops.

He says he and his wife will eventually have to make a decision about where to send their son to school: neighborhood Arlington Elementary, which consistently struggles in school rankings, or a magnet or private school.

That's in part why he and Clifford advocate and are trying to promote more home ownership and business in the neighborhood to stabilize the population and enhance the economic life.

"Griffin and Marty were the first people to come by when I moved in," Schuyler Warren, co-owner of Magic Beans Coffee Roasters, said at the December installment of the Night Market, the monthly street festivals NoLi CDC has started presenting on Bryan Avenue. (The events are taking the winter off and will resume in April.) "Griffin knows everybody and is constantly making connections between people."

Moving forward

After his talk to Transy's community engagement class, professor Kremena Todorova notes that VanMeter's previous discussions with the class had been more fun, more Kentucky for Kentucky-oriented. But this time he had a more evangelical zeal for the neighborhood, she says.

Sarah Wylie VanMeter noticed that, too. She says she thinks the recent successful pursuit of a $425,000 grant from ArtPlace America has strengthened his interest in neighborhood issues. The grant would support the acquisition of property to be renovated as affordable housing for people in creative pursuits.

It is yet another development VanMeter never anticipated but was well-positioned to work on.

"I've never planned out my life and my life direction," VanMeter says. "It's been a very organic, meandering river to get to this point."

He jokes that in city government and business circles, "I'm the young guy with the big beard who wears high-tops to the meetings."

Quick, of CommerceLexington, disagrees. He says he sees ideas and passion that are transforming a neighborhood: "I hope he inspires other Griffin VanMeters."